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The psychology of religion, or how people become believers

Apr 5, 2021
Core Spirit member since Mar 10, 2021
Reading time 4 min.

Since William James, psychologists have been interested in religion a lot: from the concept of some mystical experience, their judgments have evolved into the search for the place of religion in the brain with the help of the latest technologies. What unites religion with neurosis, how do superstitions arise, and how are epilepsy, sex, and God related? T&P publishes a transcript of a lecture by pathopsychologist Lyudmila Pyatnitskaya on the psychology of religion.

The psychology of religion deals with the consciousness of religious people: it studies how it is formed and what factors influence it; people themselves: their thinking and behavior; as well as religious sects. A very important point is the exclusion of the principle of the transcendent. This postulate in the psychology of religion says that we do not evaluate whether there is a higher mind or not. We put ourselves before the fact: there are people who believe, and we study them. To begin to study a believer, you need to understand how he becomes a believer. The theologian James Fowler described seven corresponding stages.

The first is a child up to 3 years old, who is brought up either trust or distrust of others. That is, his faith is limited by trust or distrust.

The next stage is intuitive projection faith based on intuition (4-7 years). This is our favorite “I’ll jump over these two steps, and something good will happen”. At this stage, the child is intuitive in his faith: he has some ideas about what is good and what is bad, and this is not a formalized doctrine, but his fabulous thoughts about faith.

The next stage is literally mythical (7-11 years old), where a person begins to study fairy tales or myths and take them damn literally. It is on these literal myths that his faith in this moment is based.

Then there is a synthetic-conventional faith (11-13 years old). This is a conformist faith: at this age, we integrate into the group, accept the faith that is in it, and are afraid to leave this faith and group. The most important thing is that at this stage, some people stay. Then there will be no age restrictions, and nothing terrible will happen: we will accept the faith that is in our group.

The next stage is individual-reflective faith. At this stage, the person thinks: “Is everything so good in the faith that I have accepted? Maybe there are some mistakes in it? ” He tries to regain faith in himself: the faith of the group was alien, now he returns it.

Then there is a unifying faith, where attempts to resolve the paradoxes of faith and inconsistencies come to naught, and we accept it as it is. If this happens, it happens at the age of 30. A person rediscovers myths and legends, but with a double meaning: if a child discovered all this literally, now we see double meanings.

And finally, an all-encompassing faith. This is something that no one (or gurus and mentors) can achieve. It turns out that here it is no longer a person who has faith, but a person who has faith.

Cognitive Psychology of Religion

We have reached the cognitive psychology of religion — the most modern direction in its research. Cognitive psychologists have decided that at some evolutionary stage, religious thinking somehow turned out to be the most beneficial for cognition. Here the eternal debate about science and religion comes to a strange point, because at some stage religion was necessary for knowledge, this postulate they made the main one: “Religious thinking is perhaps the path of least resistance for our cognitive systems” (Stuart Garty). A lot of modern research is aimed at understanding how the image of the deity is fixed in the mind, how it works. A principle was derived that is called the principle of fixing the minimum of counterintuitive ideas. The meaning is very simple: we remember what, on the one hand, is intuitive and understandable to us at the everyday level, but, on the other hand, breaks out of the scope of our daily life. That is, a memorable character should be, on the one hand, ordinary, and on the other hand — very unusual. This raises a question called the Mickey Mouse problem: why isn’t Mickey Mouse God? Because this is quite a household thing — a mouse in his pants, but which talks. Everyone was puzzling over this until they experimentally deduced the properties of a supernatural agent. The supernatural agent is not James Bond, but our deity. It must be incomprehensible at the everyday level, it must have strategic information, that is, know everything about everyone, it must be able to act and motivate people themselves to act (these are rites, rituals, etc.). Then there is another question: where did the old gods go? They were suitable for this position of agent, but they disappeared somewhere. Where did Zeus go? The fact is that there is one very important point — the moment of context. Some gods fall out of it. Zeus is no longer in our context, and now we look at him as a story. Maybe one day our faiths will also fall out of context, but something will replace them.

Continuing to study how the supreme deity is perceived, cognitive psychologists decided to look at what age this happens and how it happens: when a child begins to be dependent on something disembodied. An experiment was built in which the researcher asked the children to throw a ball with velcro, but through the back. Naturally, the children did not succeed. They were left alone in the room, they were supposed to throw this ball, but they were not good at it, and they began to cheat. But one day the situation changed: a chair was placed in this room and the invisible Princess Alice was placed on it. The empty chair was very important. The funny thing is that the children were asked: “Do you believe that Princess Alice is sitting here?» They’re like, “No!” and then they stop cheating. This study shows at what age some dependence on the disembodied observing being is formed.

Leave your comments / questions

I have never considered faith from a scientific point of view, for faith and science are incompatible things. Belief in spiritual power is a belief that cannot yield to logic, it is a belief beyond our understanding, which is used to living in the material world and believing in everything material. Our world lacks mutual understanding between people with different opinions. All this debate between believers and scientists, it is so stupid and pointless.